I have a crazy, multifaceted system for keeping track of our grocery list at our house. My system is part digital, using the Google Keep app on my iPhone. I can add to the list, which is also synced with my husband’s phone (on the off chance that he ever feels the urge to consult our grocery list), or if I’m feeling lazy, I can just yell out, “Hey Google! Add coffee to the shopping list” since our Google Home device also syncs to the app. Coffee will magically appear on our shopping list in the app. Amazing.
My system is also part paper, since sometimes my phone is out of reach. Before I forget, I’ll jot a grocery item on a sticky note and attach it to the side of our refrigerator.
On Thursday nights, I plan our meals for the following week, thumbing through cookbooks, recipe cards, or my Pinterest board for ideas. Once I settle on some recipes, out comes another blank piece of paper. This is my Official Grocery List. First I write down any recipe ingredients I have to purchase. Then I consult the aforementioned lists—the sticky note hanging on my refrigerator and the list in the Google Keep app—and transfer those items to my Official Grocery List. Finally, I check our refrigerator and pantry to see what else we might need.
I told you it was a crazy system. The point is, though, it works for us. We never, ever run out of coffee.
If you browse Pinterest like I do, you may have seen some beautiful, digitally created templates for shopping lists. Some you can download for free and some you have to pay for, but they are all stunning. There are chevron page borders and perfectly square checkboxes and labeled categories and little grocery icons. I can just imagine myself walking through my local grocery store with such a beautiful and organized list. Surely I would be the envy of the neighborhood. The problem with a system like that, though, is that it doesn’t work for me. I am never sure if I should write “coffee” in the Beverage section or the Tea section on those lists (or in the Bread section, which is where the coffee actually is in my grocery store). And isn’t the whole point of the list to be sure I always have coffee?
The truth is, the right system is the one that works for you. The same can be said of conferring notes.
What’s the Best Form?
At every professional development session I have ever facilitated about conferring, the number-one question I am asked is “Do you have a template or notetaking form?” The short answer is yes, I do. I have many. If you do a Google search, you will find thousands and thousands of templates for conferring notes. Pinterest is chock-full of conferring forms as well. Like the grocery lists, most of them are dazzling to the eye. As teachers, we are drawn to these well-designed forms. We love organization and visual appeal. These forms are hard to resist. We could print them and put them in a lovely teal binder!
The long answer, though, is that none of those charming forms are going to work for you. You may find yourself so preoccupied with filling in every line and every box that you forget to provide a relevant teaching point to the child in front of you. You will have a teal binder full of beautiful, meaningless forms.
You need to find a system that works for you (not a form). I suggest the following:
Start with a blank piece of paper for every student.
When you are conferring with the student, focus on the conversation, not your notes. Put your pen away and listen. Talk.
Afterward, take 60 seconds to jot down some notes on your blank paper. What did you notice? What did you talk about?
After you have conferred with many, many students, you will start to see a pattern in the way you confer and the kinds of things you typically write down. Do you usually record the child’s reading level? Do you typically provide a mentor text? Do you talk about process or content? Once you have practiced the art of conferring many times over, you will have a system that works for you. If you would like, you can then create a form to match your system.
The conference notes themselves are important. Conference notes across time help us remember and see patterns. The form, however, is not important. Blank paper works just as well as a paper with a chevron border. (I recommend the book Conferring: The Keystone of Reader’s Workshop by Patrick Allen or the article “How to Keep Conferring Notes” from Ruth Ayres for some simple yet highly effective conference notetaking strategies. Both authors have developed a no-frills, easy-to-use system to keep track of conferring notes.)
The right notetaking system is whatever system works for you. Perhaps your system will be part digital, part paper. It might involve sticky notes or an app. It might be streamlined or multifaceted. If you can look back through your notes to remember and see patterns, then it is a beautiful and perfect system for you, chevron border or not.